Two Sacred Places For Spiritual Ascent – OpEd


Karen Armstrong says that the Kaaba was thought by Muslims to be at the center of the world, with the Gate of Heaven directly above it. The Rabbis made the same claim for the Jerusalem Temple. They were both right because the Ka’ba and its younger brother the Jerusalem Temple  are the two lungs that circulate the spirit of monotheism throughout the spiritual world.

On his way to Haran, Prophet Jacob goes to sleep at night and has a vision: Genesis 28:11,  “Jacob encountered a certain (unnamed) place and stopped there for the night, for the sun had set… 28:12 “And he dreamed, and behold, a sullam set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it.” 

The Hebrew word sulam-ladder is a word that appears only once in the whole Hebrew Bible. The angels do not communicate with Jacob; he just sees them in action. This is highly unusual because in the Hebrew Bible, and ancient Near Eastern literature more broadly, divine angels generally speak; because they are emissaries with a message, but these angels are both active and silent. 

“Jacob awaked out of his sleep, and said, Surely the LORD is in this place; and I knew it not. And he was afraid (like Moses Exodus 20:18, 19), and said, How awesome is this place! This is none other but the house of God (YHVH), and this is the gate of heaven.” (Genesis 28:16-17) Prophet Jacob did not expect a personal manifestation of the Lord in this place, far from the pillars and the Ka’ba erected by his grandfather Prophet Abraham. 

Islam as a universal religion says that the Ka’ba is the primordial sanctuary and its site was picked by God. Judaism as the first historical ongoing to this day monotheistic religion says that King Solomon built the Jerusalem Temple on the land acquired for that purpose by King David. 

Prophet Jacob says, ‘Surely the LORD is in this place; and I did not know it’ until he beheld the angels of God first ascending and then descending on the ladder. 

In modern words a ladder is not an escalator. You yourself have to climb a ladder. The site of a holy sanctuary must be a place where humans did something of marvelous virtue. Then God sanctifies the place. This insight is clearly expressed in this narration that was transmitted orally in both Arabic and Hebrew throughout many centuries and finally written down in several slightly different versions in the mid 19th century.

Two brothers who had inherited land from their father, divided the land in half so each one could farm his own section. One brother’s land was mostly on a hillside; the other brother’s land was mostly in a valley on the other side of the hill. 

Over time, the older brother married and had four children, while the younger brother was still not married.

One year there was very little rain, and the crop was very  meager. This was at the beginning of a long term drought that would turn the whole valley into an arid, treeless, desert where grain did not grow and all the springs dried up. 

The younger brother lay awake one night praying and thought. “My brother has a wife and four children to feed and I have no children. He needs more grain than I do; especially now when grain is scarce.”

So that night the younger brother went to his silo, gathered a large bundle of wheat, and climbed the hill that separated the two farms and over to his brother’s farm. He left his wheat in his brother’s silo, and returned home. 

Earlier that very same night, the older brother was also lying awake praying for rain when he thought. “In my old age my wife and I will have our grown children to take care of us, as well as  grandchildren  to enjoy, while my brother will probably have no children. He should at least sell more grain from the fields now, so he can provide for himself in his old age.”

So that night, the older brother also gathered a large bundle of wheat, climbed the hill, left it in his brother’s silo, and returned home, feeling pleased with himself.

The next morning, the younger brother was surprised to see the amount of grain in his barn seemed unchanged. “I must not have taken as much wheat as I thought,” he said. “Tonight I’ll be sure to take more.” 

That same morning, the older brother standing in his barn, was thinking the same thoughts.

After night fell, each brother gathered a greater amount of wheat from his barn and in the dark, secretly delivered it to his brother’s barn. 

The next morning, the brothers were again puzzled and perplexed. “How can I be mistaken?” each one thought. “There’s the same amount of grain here as there was before. This is impossible! Tonight I’ll make no mistake – I’ll take two large sacks.”

The third night, more determined than ever, each brother gathered two large sacks of wheat from his barn, loaded them onto a cart, and slowly pulled his cart through the fields and up the hill to his brother’s barn. 

At the top of the hill, with only a little light from a new moon, each brother noticed a figure in the distance. When the two brothers recognized the form of the other brother and the load he was pulling they both realized what had happened. Without a word, they dropped the ropes of their carts, ran to each other and embraced.

Christians and Jews believe the hill is Jerusalem. Muslims believe the valley is Mecca.

I believe they are both right and God willing, someday everyone may see both cities and their sanctuaries as a pair of lungs; that are central to humanity’s spiritual inspiration by, and connection to, the One God of Prophets Abraham, Ishmael and Isaac.

Only God can make a geographical place into a holy space. Thus God’s prophets later knew that  brotherly love and concern for each other had made this space into two holy places, as a pair of spiritual lungs for two holy sanctuaries on which the descendants of these two brothers will each build and rebuild a holy House for this world’s spiritual revival. 

As the Qur’an states: “‘Believers, be steadfast in the cause of God and bear witness with justice. Do not let your enmity for others turn you away from justice. Deal justly; that is nearer to being God-fearing.” (5:8)

When all those, both near and far, who revere their house as a standard for the world, and share it in love with everyone else who reveres it, then God will help them do, as Abraham will request: “Make this a land of Peace, and provide its people with the produce of of the land”. (Qur’an 2:126). 

May the inspiration of this ancient tale, transmitted orally for so many centuries in both Arabic and Hebrew, help Christians, Jews and Muslims overcome the many hate filled actions occurring in today’s world. As the Qur’an states: Good and evil deeds are not equal. Repel evil with what is better; then you will see that one who was once your enemy has become your dearest friend…”  (41:34)

May the one pair of lungs provide the spiritual energy all humans need to live according to God’s  peace: “Say: the Holy Spirit has brought the Revelation from your Lord in Truth, in order to strengthen those who believe, and as guidance and glad tidings to Muslims.” (Qur’an 16:102) 

And as the Hebrew Prophet Joel (2:28-9) states: in Messianic times the Holy Spirit will be poured out upon all the People of Israel. And according to a statement in the seventh century rabbinic Midrash Tanna debe Eliyahu, (Friedman edition): the Holy Spirit will be poured out equally upon Jews and non-Jews, men and women, freemen and slaves.

Then the descendants of Abraham will learn to live in Holiness, Peace and Prosperity. And as Prophet Isaiah predicted (19:23-25): “On that day there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria. The Assyrians will go to Egypt and the Egyptians to Assyria. The Egyptians and Assyrians will worship together. On that day Israel will be the third, along with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing on the earth. The Lord Almighty will bless them, saying, “Blessed be Egypt my people, Assyria my handiwork, and Israel my inheritance.” 

Most observers agree that anyone who could arrange such Jewish-Muslim cooperation would really be a Messianic Ruler of Peace (Isaiah 9:5)  Christian support for such a cooperative venture would also be very important, and any leaders who can bring Jews, Christians and Muslims together in mutual respect and cooperation would surely fulfill the greatest of all Messianic predictions, “They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning knives; nation shall not take up sword against nation, they shall never again teach war.” (Isaiah 2:4)  

Indeed, such Jewish/Christian/Muslim cooperation would not be possible without great spiritual leadership in all three communities. Thus, each community could consider its leadership to be the Messiah and this would fulfill the just cited verse of Isaiah’s Messianic prophecy, as enlarged upon by the prophet Micah, “They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning knives. Nation shall not take up sword against nation, they shall never again teach war, but every man shall sit under his grapevine or fig tree with no one to disturb him, for it is the Lord of Hosts who spoke. Though all peoples walk each in the name of its God, we will walk in the name of the Lord our God for ever and ever.” (Micah: 3-5)

As the Qur’an states: “Righteous is not that you turn your faces toward the east or the west, but  righteous is [in] one who believes in Allah, the Last Day, the angels, the Book, the Prophets; and gives wealth in spite of love for it, to relatives, orphans, the needy, the traveler, those who ask [for help], and for freeing slaves; [who] establishes prayer and gives Zakah; fulfilling their promise when they promise; and are patient in poverty, hardship and during battle. These are those who have been true, and it is these who are the righteous.” (2:177)

And the Qur’an also states: “‘Believers, be steadfast in the cause of God and bear witness with justice. Do not let your enmity for others turn you away from justice. Deal justly; that is nearer to being God-fearing.” (5:8)

Rabbi Allen S. Maller

Allen Maller retired in 2006 after 39 years as Rabbi of Temple Akiba in Culver City, Calif. He is the author of an introduction to Jewish mysticism. God. Sex and Kabbalah and editor of the Tikun series of High Holy Day prayerbooks.

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